Press release | March 29, 2016

Machete attack on award-winning Cambodian activist part of global trend of violence against forest defenders

Global Witness is calling on the Cambodian government to urgently investigate a violent attack on a young forest activist, who was hacked with a machete while investigating rampant illegal logging in one of Southeast Asia’s largest evergreen forests.

Phan Sopheak is one of a group of activists awarded the UN Equator Prize at the 2015 Paris climate summit, an award given for outstanding achievements in sustainable development.

She belongs to the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a grassroots movement struggling to save Prey Lang forest, which spans five provinces in northern Cambodia.

The battle to protect Cambodia’s forests is becoming increasingly murderous, with at least five deaths linked to logging since 2007. Globally on average at least two people are killed a week defending the natural world from industries like mining, logging, hydropower and agribusiness. Thirty forest defenders were murdered between 2012 and 2014 alone.

“Cambodia’s forests have become like a piggy bank for Cambodia’s elites and their cronies, who routinely flout forest protection laws to pillage them for valuable timber, or sell off the land illegally for mining and agribusiness concessions,” said Josie Cohen, campaigner at Global Witness. “So much so that over the last fifteen years tree cover loss in Cambodia has accelerated faster than in any other country in the world. This pits activists like Sopheak against powerful economic interests, often backed up by state forces.”

Sopheak was on forest patrol but asleep in her hammock when she was attacked. Members of the PLCN believe that her assailants were trying to cut her throat, but they instead severely injured her feet.

The PLCN suffers regular harassment from Cambodian courts, police and soldiers, as well as local officials involved in the timber business. The group is made up largely of indigenous activists who live in and around the Prey Lang forest and rely on it for their food, medicine and jobs.  

“Sopheak’s attack should come as a wake-up call to companies who source forest or agribusiness products from Cambodia,” said Cohen. “The forest sector has long been plagued by corruption. It now appears to be becoming increasingly deadly. We are calling on the government to immediately take action to prevent forest destruction in the Prey Lang region, and prosecute those responsible for violence and intimidation against forest-dependent communities.”



  • Josie Cohen

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